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Once we establish a regular practice (which is the first very important and not trivial step) we have to constantly check our intentions and motivations: what brings us to the mat? Why do we choose to spend time and invest effort in this practice? Why do we persist in spite of many difficulties? What really propels us? What do we get from our practice?
These motivations usually transform as we develop and mature in our practice, yet it’s important to continuously observe and check our present motivations and additionally, of utmost importance, to what extent our motivations are aligned with the goals set out in the tradition of yoga. This is Svādhyāya.
Motivations Unaligned with the Goals of Yoga
Yoga is a journey of self-study and exploration (see my previous articles: Practicing Yoga – Why Do We Do It? and Attentive Yoga Practice and the Psychophysical Lab). In another article, I presented some factors that may inspire us to practice. Here, I want to examine more closely our motivations to practice and to what extent they correspond to those defined by the tradition of yoga.
Some yoga teachers give tips that can help to keep us motivated. But are these motivations correspond with what yoga really is?
We may have a mixture of various motivations. Some of these may be hidden. Some may motivate us to practice something which is not yoga! Such motivations can operate in the back of our minds, and we never consider them and check their validity. Here are two examples of such motivations that I observe in many people and can also recognize in myself.
Keeping Our Bodies Fit
You may be practicing yoga in order to keep your body fit and in good form. As I am aging, some of my students who are also aging, shared with me that they feel that their body weakens and their cardio-lung endurance diminishes. They asked me if they should include dynamic, aerobic movements and muscle-building exercises in their practice. My response is that, although keeping our bodies fit – maintaining our heart and lungs health is important – yoga is not about that. I can suggest keeping the yoga practice pure and concentrating on the true, essential goals of yoga. My recommendation is to do aerobic practice at a different time and not mix it with yoga. Go jogging, go cycling, swim, or go to a gym – no problem, nothing wrong with that. On the contrary, it is important to take good care of our bodies, but keep your yoga practice as a lab to study yourself, to develop observation, concentration, clarity, and balance.
Practicing yoga certainly keeps the body healthy and fit and makes us stronger, lighter in movement, and more flexible. But these are merely byproducts – not the purpose. This is not a motivation aligned with the tradition of yoga.
Another motivation that can sometimes rise, is to practice in order to impress and excel. To post nice photos on Instagram, so that everybody will see how good we are. This is a natural tendency, we all want to be noticed, to be loved. However, this, obviously, is not a motivation set out by the yoga tradition.
In fact, there is nothing wrong with the mere act of posting photos. What is crucial is the motivation behind it. B.K.S. Iyengar demonstrated the āsanas in his books. He made dozens of demonstrations and his photos decorate many Iyengar Yoga centers (first and foremost, his own institute in Pune). But he did not do it to show how good he is, but to promote yoga, and to spread it to as many people as possible. If your motive is not the ego, but the well-being of others, then by any means, posting photos is justified – but check your motive!
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Achieving Advanced Poses
Some people practicing to conquer more and more challenging poses. They compete with their body and bring it to its limits. There is nothing wrong with challenging yourself every now and then, but if this is the main goal of the practice then isn’t a balanced practice. If we are always running after a goal or an image that exists in our mind, and are not open to observing the reality of our body, then we may do Himsa-practice (Himsa is the opposite of Ahimsa – noninjury, non-violence).
Being on the path of achievement makes yoga a kind of competitive sport, and misses the main value of yoga, which is self-study and self-transformation.
We all have these tendencies and motivations; sometimes they are hidden, acting behind the scenes, but Svādhyāya (self-study) means to deeply observe and understand these hidden motivations. I can recognize these tendencies in other people because I can recognize them in myself. Sometimes I want to impress, sometimes my motivation is to have a healthy and fit body and sometimes I am ready to sacrifice my health and well-being, just to achieve an advanced pose. But when I observe this, again and again, I contemplate the question – what is yoga, really?
So, What is Yoga Really?
Yoga is self-study; yoga is a study of our Chitta (consciousness) in order to transform it. Kriya Yoga – yoga in action, is to study ourselves in action. We apply ourselves (Tapas); we study ourselves (Svādhyāya); and we surrender ourselves (Ishvara praṇidhāna).
When we apply ourselves to the practice wholeheartedly, we meet ourselves and study ourselves – there is no other choice. And when we study ourselves, we understand the need to surrender. We see ourselves in a balanced way, without self-centeredness and false self-importance and then we naturally surrender.
In yoga, we study ourselves in action. We can and should also do so during our daily activities, yet the time we devote to practice is a time we allocate especially for that, it’s our study-lab. The āsanas are special tools that create calmness, centeredness, focus, concentration, and therefore clarity. Hence, they are ideal for self-study. They were designed especially for that. We have to use this powerful and wonderful tool towards this end.
We need to ask ourselves: how do I react to challenges? Can I apply the physical actions of the āsana with full intensity, but without creating tension in my breath, senses, and mind? Can I keep the mind intense and alert without fading or oscillating? How do I respond to stressful situations, to fear? To limitations? Can I remain calm and balanced even when met with difficulty or failure? How do I react to pleasure and pain? Can I maintain equanimity, even in the midst of a battlefield (as Arjuna had to while standing between the two armies)?
As we age our bodies become weaker, and we cannot do what we used to do. We may experience frustration, especially if our original motivation is wrong. But in fact, the practice remains the same: I apply myself; I study myself and I surrender myself. This doesn’t change and we can do it at any age.